It takes a village to make a school play

Elementary school stages a production of Hunsaker's play 'Tides and the Tempest'

Posted: Thursday, March 25, 2004

Some students, arms hauling on imaginary ropes, sang of John Cabot setting out for America. Others chanted a Tlingit canoe song, hands paddling. All the voices blended.

It was Wednesday morning with music teacher Lorrie Heagy at Glacier Valley Elementary School, where 60 students were working through spring break to rehearse a play that combines Shakespeare with a Tlingit myth.

"Tides and the Tempest," a 55-page work by local playwright Dave Hunsaker, will culminate a school-year-long effort to integrate math, English, social studies and the arts at Glacier Valley.

"The idea has been a whole-school arts integration, where the hands of every child in our building have touched some part of this project," said extended-learning teacher Jeremy Neldon. Nearly all the children painted some part of the backdrops. Many children made masks, some of which are used in the play, he said.

Giving up spring break was worth it, said Jordan Jeans, a fifth-grade girl who will play European-style music on a recorder in the performance.

"What I'm learning from it so far is you can blend two kinds of cultures, and you can make one big show out of it," she said Wednesday.

"It's kind of like a one chance in a lifetime," said fifth-grader Marshall Sargeant on Tuesday. He had never played the recorder before but came early Wednesday to practice in the hallway.

The project was triggered by a grant from Carnegie Hall's education program to teach a fourth-grade music curriculum that featured Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, known as "From the New World."

Next month, students from around the school district will perform at a Juneau Symphony concert on recorders donated by Carnegie Hall.

But at Glacier Valley the music curriculum was just a starting point. Teachers used the concepts of Old World and New World to combine Shakespeare and Tlingit culture, and then made the Renaissance a theme for the school year.

Students have picked up grammar from studying Shakespeare's language; simulated what it means to be well-rounded in the sense of a Renaissance person versed in math, science and the arts; and applied the Renaissance virtue of being a hero in their own way, by sticking up for other children on the playground.

On a day devoted to Shakespeare, teachers used his language in class, and costumed staff members enacted scenes from his plays. It brought the staff together in ways that wouldn't have happened otherwise. The school learned that Jorge Cordero, the day custodian, used to recite poetry in high school, Heagy said.

"It's been a great community-builder, because the entire school has embraced this idea of Shakespeare and how we can get the students to understand Shakespeare and be excited by Shakespeare and see how it can be connected with the myth of Keetshagoon (the killer whale)," Heagy said.

Students received stamps for fulfilling the various aspects that define a Renaissance person. When the stamp book was full, Principal Ted Wilson, acting as king, knighted the kids.

On Tuesday, director and artist-in-residence Ryan Conarro sat around a table with eight children who will speak the Shakespearean lines in the play. Conarro has acted in New York City and at Perseverance Theatre in Douglas.

"Tides and the Tempest" alternates between an abridgment of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and the myth of Naatsilanei and the killer whale of the Dakl'aweidi people. In both stories, a man was marooned on an island and left to die, and became a sort of shaman.

Some students will speak lines, others will enact the words with masks and movements, and still others will perform European and Native music.

Conarro urged the speakers to use their voices to convey emotion. He instructed Ariana Orford, playing Alonso, to cry before speaking the appeal "prithee, peace."

"Keep going," he said.

"With the line?" she asked.

"No, just the crying. Good. Now, that's going to start the scene so you have to do it loud."

Conarro told the students what a line means and what emotions and intentions their character should have. He slowed them down when they talked too fast.

He urged Elizabeth Ringle, playing Sebastian, to be more dorky but soon asked her to "take down the dork-meter a bit."

"Don't try to be funny, and then it will be funny," he told the students.

During a break Wednesday, Conarro said the play provides social benefits for the students.

"It's just like team sports," he said, in which students must rely on each other, make a major commitment and take on a lot of responsibility.

"A lot of risk-taking, too," added Roblin Davis, a performer who is training the students in movement. "Theater is about risk-taking in the first place. We're setting such high expectations and the kids have set such high expectations ... and we're inviting 1,000 people to see this."

Elizabeth, a fifth-grader, said she wanted to be a speaker in the play because she likes to read.

"I really like the way that books can give you more insight on the person's life and you can hear the thoughts, instead of not hearing them on TV," she said.

Elizabeth said she's learning how to work in a group, which she usually doesn't like, and she enjoys learning the "hard words" of Shakespeare.

Davis - who is a performer, director and specialist in physical acting - also helped the school's students make masks. They learned to sculpt with clay, craft with papier-maché, and paint in a very detailed way, he said.

"A fundamental part of being human is exploration, and art is part of that," Davis said. "It's the neatest thing to give a child clay and say 'go for it' and see what comes out of it."

"You are a sea lion," Davis told a girl during a movement game Tuesday. "It doesn't matter. It's not a right or a wrong. It's just an exploration."

The prone girl hauled herself along the carpet by her arms. A boy crawled, using his elbows. Shay Jerue had to enact a killer whale.

"I'm thinking," she said. "OK!"

Then she walked on her hands and feet with her body lifted between them like a tent.

"Water helps," Davis said. "That's a good interpretation of swimming as a killer whale."

Like Conarro, Davis watched for every detail. When four children were mimicking people in a stationary canoe, he told them to bounce at their knees to replicate a boat bobbing in the water.

The project has drawn in community members. Juneau-Douglas High School students have been helping to prepare the props and costumes.

Sophomore Giselle Stone has been preparing costumes that will have painted Tlingit designs on them. Using a color transparency, she traces the designs onto cloth, then mixes paints to get authentic colors, then lets the children paint.

"I love working with little kids, and I love painting," Stone said.

Parent Trish Makaily is teaching the children Native dancing.

"The main secret for that (dancing) is to bend your knees and bounce on your knees," she told students Tuesday. When they started to look like ducks, Makaily suggested they hop a bit.

"Bend your knees. Bounce," she said as she drummed. "Do you feel the beat? That's all you gotta do is feel the beat."

"Tides and the Tempest" will be performed at 7 p.m. April 10 at the JDHS auditorium. Admission is $10. Proceeds will fund art programs at Glacier Valley.

• Eric Fry can be reached at

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